Photo: Gabriel Serafini, Flickr CC BY 2.0

An in-depth investigation of Vietnamese Samsung production facilities reveals that vulnerable and mostly female workers may be sacrificing their neurological and reproductive health to make smartphones.

Photo: Gabriel Serafini, Flickr CC BY 2.0

The study is a collaboration between the global environmental watchdog IPEN and the Vietnam-based Center for Gender, Family and Environment in Development (CGFED). The investigation is based on interviews with 45 workers – 80 percent of them women – at two factories in a provincial city in Vietnam. The workers’ testimony revealed major health impacts related to toxic exposure and overwork. Nearly all reported experiencing “extreme fatigue or dizziness,” sometimes fainting spells and increased likelihood of miscarriages.

Workers seem to be ill-informed of potential hazards and lack a clear understanding about how their working conditions related to their health. IPEN researcher Joe DiGangi says “Despite the fact that they work in an open factory setting where other workers are using a variety of substances, they did not consider their own job to be either using chemicals or to have any remote possibility of chemical exposure”. In this environment productivity takes priority over safety training or standards for protective gear.

Furthermore, Samsung factories deliberately separate mothers from families through the dormitory system. Workers are kept in group housing on isolated compounds, where the company prohibits children from living with parents. As a result many families are split up for long periods of time.

Yet even in South Korea, the location of Samsung’s headquarters, workers have for years seen their claims for injury-related compensation thwarted by the company. This pattern signals that as Samsung expands its global network and intensifies the mass-production of consumer electronics, it will continue to cut costs and exploit workers.

With no real independent trade unions and severe restrictions on labor organizing generally, Vietnamese workers have limited recourse compared to their South Korean counterparts. Samsung has reportedly threatened workers with dismissal and lawsuits if they continue to speak out about working conditions.

In response to the investigation of its Vietnamese production sites, Samsung has also threatened legal action against CGFED and IPEN, arguing that  “on-site audits of the facilities in December 2016 and June 2017…show a reality that refutes the violations”.

The Vietnamese labor ministry recently conducted its own audit of the facilities and reported on several labor violations, including excessive hours. But IPEN argues that “large gaps still remain” because the government has not addressed numerous occupational-safety concerns, including chemical contamination. Here, the political and economic factors underpinning foreign investment are likely to hinder any deeper investigations by the Vietnamese government.

Despite this, DiGangi hopes the report will stimulate greater public awareness about the working conditions in the global tech supply chain. Consumer pressure on the company to improve on labor issues could perhaps spur Samsung to at least “publicly state that workers have a right to speak about their working conditions,” he says. “That’s something that a trade union would typically insist upon but the company should state that.” Future research should be done transparently, DiGangi adds, “with the involvement of workers themselves” as truly independent auditors, since they “have the best sense of their own work and their own jobs.”

For now, the workers continue to be silenced, and the massive global demand for the devices they produce will speak loudest for Samsung’s executives. As long as consumers continue to see their phones as indispensable, whatever the cost to workers’ health, and multinational companies treat their workers’ bodies as disposable, the message from the market to the workers is still: “Get used to it.”

Read the full article ‘Was Your Smartphone Built in a Sweatshop?‘